‘there’ll always be an England’ redux

After devising ‘there’ll always be an England’ as a participatory work for Happidrome One,  it was recreated during ‘offsite:inside’ curated by Sara Bowler at Newyln Art Gallery, 2008. I was curious to see how the meaning of a site specific work would change in a gallery context. The following is from a critical discussion of the project by writer Paul Glinkowski-full text can be found at http://engineroomcogs.org/component/option,com_docman/task,cat_view/Itemid,44/gid,37/orderby,dmdate_published/ascdesc,DESC/

Red, white and blue; what does it mean to you?
Surely you’re proud, shout it aloud,
“Britons, awake!”
The empire too, we can depend on you.
Freedom remains. These are the chains
Nothing can break.
There’ll always be an England,
And England shall be free
If England means as much to you
As England means to me.

Elizabeth Masterton trained as printmaker at Brighton and at the Royal College of Art, where she gained an MA in 2000. Her practice has since moved in other directions, including into making work in a variety of media in response to nongallery settings. For Me and My Shadow, a weekend-long project at Wilton’s Music Hall in Hackney, London, in May 2005, for example, Masterton collaborated with Loretta Bosence to create a sound installation, Sing us an Old Song!, using recordings of elderly women, some of whom had formerly worked in the music hall, singing songs that they feared might disappear and that they would like to pass on. The songs were piped out into the empty music hall auditorium. ‘There were no visual props at all,’ says Masterton, ‘just the building and the sound.’There’ll always be an England, the work that Masterton recreated at the Newlyn Art Gallery for OI, also hearkens back to an old song: this time it is to a nostalgic,patriotic one.

There’ll always be an England was originally made for the artist-led project Happidrome, which took place on Goonhilly Downs in July 2007, on the remnants of a site that was occupied during the Second World War by a radar station, RAF Drytree. Now located within a national nature reserve, the building itself is gated but the area around it remains accessible to the public. Reflecting on the military history of the site provided the trigger for the work. ‘I have a long-standing interest in military systems and architecture,’ says Masterton, ‘in how the military sets itself up as an infallible institution. I’m interested in exploring the fallibility of the supposedly infallible. The military seemed to me to epitomise that.’

In physical terms, the installation There’ll always be an England consists of an old-fashioned ladies bike mounted on a stand, which is attached by wires to a hardboard screen in front upon which the words “There’ll always be an England” appear in incandescent lights when the cyclist peddles with sufficient force. In Happidrome, the work occupied a dark space at the end of a disused 90 foot bunker. ‘In preparing for the project,’ says Masterton, ‘I read lots of local history books, and papers from the public records office. I learned that bicycles were an important part of escaping from the military life. The location on the Downs made it hard to get off base for leisure time, but some of the personnel were issued with bikes that they could take outside. A lot of the radio operators at the base were women, and I was interested in what the WAFFs [the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] did for recreation.’ The bike used in the piece is a lady’s bike, and the graphic style of the illuminated phrase, “There’ll always be an England”, is derived from a 1940s knitting magazine. ‘I call the typeface “Forties housewife”,’ says Masterton, ‘but it would have been handrawn (by a man, I’d imagine) to be suggestive of female handwriting.’

The idea of doing something “under your own steam” became a driving idea for the work. It refers to the Second World War ethic that everybody had to pull together. The song There’ll always be an England was written in 1940, when RAF Drytree would have been operational, by Parker and Charles, who also penned another well known patriotic song of that time (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover. ‘The song is about the indomitability of England,’ says Masterton. ‘My work though, wishes to question nationalistic clichés, such as the oversimplistic idea of England being “a green and pleasant land”. The description of England in the song is very much about lovely cottages and rolling fields, and about the British Empire always being there to protect England. I thought about recording me singing the song in the bunker. That would introduce the idea of frailty to the work. I’m not a good singer, so there would be a weedy voice there in the bunker. I decided in the end though, not to use music on this occasion, just the text.’

By staging the work in the derelict building Masterton implied that, in fact, there may not “always be an England”. The overgrown and decrepit bunker was a reminder that monuments to the idea of permanence are being left to decay. The bike used in the installation, though not an original 1940s model, was also calculatedly dilapidated. And the incandescent miniature light bulbs used to illuminate the eponymous slogan were deliberately meant to look old fashioned; to give off “an end of the pier” type glow. There is an element of knocked togetherness about the piece as a whole, which mirrors the way that some of the Radar technology of the time was knocked together. ‘They were often not elegant solutions,’ says Masterton, ‘they were “make do and mend” type solutions.’

Originally, the work was shown in pitch black surroundings. Visitors had to be guided on to the bike by invigilators. ‘Until you were actually peddling the bike,’ says Masterton, ‘you could not even see that there was a phrase there to be illuminated. The bike was welded onto the frame in the highest gear, so it was incredibly hard to peddle. The faster you peddled, the brighter the lights became; so you were rewarded for working harder. People were so pumped up with adrenaline, or endorphins, that they invariably came out saying “oh wow, what a great piece”. I liked the fact that your body was making chemicals in response to the art work and that that might be altering or influencing your perception of the work.’

Visitors to Happidrome tended to respond to Masterton’s work as an experiential, interactive piece, rather than something symbolic that required interpretation. ‘I thought that people would relate it to what was happening in the world now,’ says Masterton, ‘to how our position in the world has changed since the Second World War. But people didn’t necessarily see it in that way.’ When Happidrome ended, Masterton wanted to leave the work in the bunker so that anyone who happened to stumble across it could still make it work, but the bunker sprang a leak and the installation had to be removed.

Recreating the work at the Newlyn Art Gallery offered a chance to find out whether the reception of the work would be different in a gallery setting. ‘I decided just to try it out to see how the meaning would change when the work was brought into a white space,’ said Masterton. ‘Initially, I thought “that’s just not going to work”, and I considered doing something else for OI, but the curator and I decided that there didn’t seem to be another way that we could suggest or somehow represent the piece in the gallery. We decided in the end just to bring it in and try it. I’m glad we did, because it is completely different.’

The Newlyn Art Gallery lacked not just the historical dimension, the connection to the Second World War, but also the quality and immediacy of sensation encountered in the bunker. The aspect of reward and interactivity remained, but the drama of the location was missing. ‘The bunker has its own peculiar atmosphere,’ recalls Masterton, ‘it’s dark, spooky, and enigmatic. It smells damp, and that instantly carries connotations of age and memory and decay. All those things are lost in the more clinical gallery setting.’ The gallery space was also quite light, which meant that the text was revealed without the effort of having to peddle the bike.

‘The ensemble aspect of the original group show is also missing here’ observed Masterton. ‘It is no longer one of a series of new works made in response to a common site. In general, I favour taking work out of the gallery, but there is a real problem in trying to get people along. Without the curator’s invitation, I would not have thought of recreating the work in a gallery, though there was an interest in seeing how the meaning of the piece would change and what aspects of it would survive. I wouldn’t say it was unsuccessful here, I would just say it is very different from the site in which it was intended to be seen. Physically speaking, it actually fits very well in the Newlyn space, but that was a happy coincidence.’

The institutional atmosphere of the Newlyn Art Gallery also made a difference to the reception of the work. At Happidrome the audience did include people who had made a specific effort to see the project, but there were others who were just out walking the dog. Masterton felt frustrated by the lack of opportunity for critical feedback at the original offsite location. Because it was an artist-initiated project there was an absence of independent curatorial dialogue; each artist simply worked in isolation on their own piece. For Masterton this meant that there was little chance fully to articulate the thought processes that had gone into the work. ‘I was interested in the opportunity that OI offered to have a dialogue with a writer,’ observed Masterton, ‘because that offered the possibility of some critical discussion, and a chance to talk through some of the dimensions of the work that had perhaps remained dormant.’

Masterton chose not to reproduce any documentation from the original offsite project alongside its gallery incarnation. ‘I’m very ambivalent about documenting site specific work,’ she explained. ‘It can only provide a snapshot; you lack the sight, the sounds, the smell of the piece in situ. That’s what I liked about the original piece: that there were all sorts of other senses being stimulated. That just wouldn’t be the case in the gallery.’

Although Masterton’s recreation of There’ll always be an England lacked the rich contextual trappings and the suggestive atmospherics of its original staging, it did nevertheless seem to hold its own as a gallery exhibit. Shorn of any didactic explication of the ideas that had informed its genesis, its themes of ambiguous patriotism and uncertain nostalgia, allied to the effort of interactivity required to trigger and thereby complete the spectacle, meant that viewers were still able to engage with the piece on multiple levels. The result may not have been as full, or as rewarding, as it was offsite, but it was by no means negligible as a visual and contemplative experience.

Text © Paul Glinkowski 2008
Happidrome images by Paul Ridout
Offsite:Inside images by Sara Bowler

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